Sun, sand, and surf are the ingredients for an idyllic summer beach trip. However, a trip to the beach often presents unexpected dangers to you and your family. Knowing these common and not-so-common beach safety hazards can help you plan for and enjoy your trip to the ocean or lake.
1. Water Safety
One of the biggest dangers at the beach is, of course, the water itself. Children can drown in just a few inches of water — and it doesn't take long. Even strong adult swimmers can drown under the wrong conditions. Preparing everyone before your trip by reviewing some basic water safety rules could help keep everyone safe.
- Only swim when a lifeguard is on duty.
- Supervise children in and near the water at all times. Younger children and children who can’t swim well should always be within reaching distance.
- Make it clear to all children that they must ask for permission before going in the water.
- Children and inexperienced swimmers should wear U.S. Coast Guard–approved life jackets when they are in the water.
- Always swim with a friend nearby.
- Teach everyone to swim. Water safety courses and swimming courses are among the best ways to keep you and your family safe at the beach.
2. Rip Currents
Often referred to as riptides or undertows, rip currents are responsible for most rescues that lifeguards have to perform and nearly 100 deaths a year.
What Is a Rip Current?
Rip currents are narrow, fast-moving channels of water that form when the surf breaks near the shoreline instead of on the shore, and the water “piles up” between the breaking waves and the beach. The water may return to the sea (or lake) by forming a narrow channel, essentially taking the path of least resistance away from the shore and out to open water. The water in a rip current typically moves at 1 to 2 feet per second but can move as fast as 8 feet per second, overpowering even the strongest swimmers.
How to Spot a Rip Current
Rip currents frequently form around piers, sandbars, or breakwaters, but can form just about anywhere. Here are the signs to look for:
- A narrow channel of choppy, churning water between calmer areas
- An area where the color of the water is different
- A line of seaweed, beach debris, or foam traveling steadily away from the shore
- A break in the pattern of the incoming waves
One of the most obvious signs of a dangerous rip current, though, is a posted warning or a flag indicating that conditions are more dangerous than usual.
How to Escape a Rip Current
If you suddenly find yourself being pulled out to sea, there are ways to get safely back to shore:
- Don't panic. Keep in mind that rip currents pull you out, not under.
- Resist the urge to fight the current by swimming back toward the shore. Instead, turn and swim parallel to the shore.
- Once you’re out of the pull, swim back toward the shore and away from the rip current at an angle.
- If you can’t swim out of the current, stop swimming, start treading water, and let the waves carry you. The rip current loses strength the further it gets from the shore. Conserve your energy, and when it subsides, swim back toward the shore at an angle away from the current.
- If you feel you can’t get back to the shore, draw attention by facing the beach, raising one or both arms above your head, and call for help.
Additional Rip Current Safety Tips:
- Check conditions before you leave for the beach.
- Ask the lifeguard if there are any areas to avoid.
- Swim at least 100 feet away from piers, sandbars, breakwaters, and other beach structures.
3. Beach Safety
Be prepared for the little injuries and emergencies that go along with a day at the beach. Pack a first-aid kit with supplies to deal with the most common beach injuries – sunburns, skin cuts, and jellyfish stings. Wear water shoes to avoid sharp objects like rocks, pebbles, and seashells. It is also critical to know about warning flags to help you avoid beach hazards.
What Beach Flags Mean
The meanings of the colored warning flags on public beaches can vary from state to state, so always check with local authorities to learn what the posted flags mean. For example, Florida uses a standardized statewide system, seen below, and many other states use similar codes to give beachgoers information about beach conditions.
- Two red flags: Beach closed, dangerous conditions
- One red flag: High hazard, high surf, or strong currents
- Yellow flag: Medium hazard, moderate surf or currents
- Green flag: Low hazard, calm conditions, exercise caution
- Purple flag: Dangerous marine life (usually jellyfish)
- An absence of beach flags does not assure safe waters
4. Sun Safety
The beach, with little shade and lots of reflective surfaces — hello, sand and water! — makes sun safety an important concern. The sun’s ultraviolet rays can damage your skin and eyes, suppress your immune system, and cause cancer. Here's how to avoid sunburn and other sun-related hazards.
- Check the UV index for the day before heading out for your trip, and keep tabs on it over the course of the day with My AcuRite®, which can send you customizable alerts to warn you of potentially dangerous UV levels.
- Wear sunscreen whenever you’re out in the sun. Reapply it at least every two hours or after swimming or engaging in physical activity.
- Wear a wide-brimmed hat or other head covering.
- Protect your skin with a lightweight shirt or pants, or wear clothing (and bathing suits) with built-in UV protection.
- Bring along an umbrella or canopy for shade.
5. Food Safety
Chances are that you’re packing a picnic basket if you’re planning to spend the day at the beach. Choosing your snacks wisely and keeping them at the right temperatures can help you avoid foodborne illnesses.
- Pack cold foods — including sandwiches and salads — in well-insulated coolers and surround them with ice.
- Monitor your cooler all day with a cooler thermometer to ensure ideal temperature for food safety!
- Discard any perishables that are left out of the cooler for more than two hours.
- Bring hand wipes so kids can wash their hands before eating or handling food.
6. Weather Safety
Is it too hot for a beach day? Will it rain on your picnic? What should you do if a storm brews while you’re at the beach? Knowing the weather forecast and current conditions can help ensure that you have a fun and safe beach day.
- Check the weather forecast when making plans and before heading out for the day to make sure you’re prepared for whatever the day brings.
- Bring plenty of water to make sure that everyone stays hydrated, especially in hot weather.
- Watch for lightning. Believe it or not, beach activities are the second-highest cause of lightning fatalities, right after fishing. A portable lightning detector can alert you when storms are within range and give you enough warning to get off the beach and seek shelter.
Family Beach Trip
A day at the beach is not necessarily fraught with possible disasters, but it is still important to heed warnings about potential dangers. A little advance planning and a hefty dose of weather knowledge can help you and your family head out for a fun and safe day at the beach.